It’s easy for me to devour news analysis and critical writing online, respond to it with a strong emotional flare (“Yes!” “How awful!”), then forget about it. Trying to check that consumerist impulse by taking time here to share notes on things I’ve read online that affected or struck me, whether or not I agreed with the author’s arguments.
Philip Blond reviews John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future. Blond is a conservative Catholic; his review favorably examines Milbank and Pabst’s assertion that liberalism is responsible for both dissolving social ties and duties on an individual level and creating a market authoritarianism on the social level. The authors argue that social liberalism, asserting that the most important freedoms are negative (“freedom from“), and economic liberalism, giving every realm of social life over to the market, are inextricably linked. But how to imagine a post-liberal politics that not just, say, reactionary populism or proto-fascism? These particular conservative authors are stumped. Too bad the review doesn’t meaningfully engage liberalism’s critics on the left.
Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Burden-Stelly critiques what she sees in Coates’s writing on whiteness as a metaphysics– an unbreakable magic spell, intrinsic to America– rather than as one instrument of an oppressive social and economic order. “[A]ntiblackness is inextricable from the suppression of labor, the deportation of ‘alien’ progressives, the incarceration of anti-capitalists, the indictment of communists and ‘fellow travellers,’ the censure of demands for fundamental redistribution, and the overall repression of the left.” If racism is primarily an innate American wound instantiated in individual racist behaviors, there is no room for a structural analysis of inequality or the development of counterpower. Burden-Stelly paraphrases Claudia Jones, a 50s intellectual, that “white supremacy was not a matter of attitude or morals, but rather of property rights, access to resources, and the hierarchical organization of American society.”
Robert Cottrell reviews Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, a study of Russian society under Putin seen through the lives of seven contemporary Russians. Gessen claims that Russia’s society has retained an orientation toward totalitarianism, which persists even in the absence of a totalitarian leader; Putin’s government is instead closer to a “Mafia state.” And in modern Russia the persecution of gays serves a similar purpose to Russia’s persecution of Jews: destroying an “enemy within” to strengthen state control of the social order.
Ross Douthat, “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” Douthat looks at the white evangelicals who elected Trump even though he was a Godless bully and sexual predator. Won’t Trump drive away young evangelicals who care deeply about character and orthodoxy, and fissure white conservative political power? Douthat has his doubts. Many seem to be sticking with white Christian tribalism, no matter how partisan and anti-intellectual its results. And perhaps, in fact, it’s in this ghastly tribalism that evangelicalism had its strength all along.
Henry Louis Gates, “Let Them Talk: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights.” From (of all places) The New Republic, originally published in the late ’90s. This is the most thorough and detailed argument against the idea of criminalizing/censoring “hate speech” I’ve ever read by an intellectual conversant in critical race theory.
Kenan Malik, “In Search of the Common Good.” Malik examines the notion of the “common good” and the role it plays in underpinning the possibility of solidarity. He notes that the common good has traditionally been defined by who it otherizes and excludes; and he also notes how liberalism has both weakened and widened this concept. “[L]iberal individualism has helped both undermine the idea of community, and hence of the common good, and expand our conception of the moral community which defines the common good.” In the US and England, both the left and right are currently deeply critical of the concept of the common good. We live in a very socially fragmented society, which makes solidarity across lines of ethnicity, culture, and faith (and meaningful engagement with one’s opponents) increasingly difficult. Where do we go from here?
Steven Mithen reviews James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Humans’ transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was messy, often disastrous: it increased the spread of disease among animals and humans; it wore down laborers’ bodies; and it promoted centralized hierarchy (made possible by taxation of grain), slavery, and war. By contrast, many centers of hunter-gatherer activity (Scott discusses Hongzhou Bay and Mesopotamia) had abundant resources, sometimes enough to permit a sedentary lifestyle. So why switch? Mithen’s review doesn’t mention Marvin Harris’s thesis in Cannibals and Kings, that most hunter-gatherer societies intensified their resource extraction until non-farmable resources were exhausted; they were thus forced to adopt agriculture. Mithen and Scott focus instead mostly on massive sites of worship as a justification for a transition to cereal-based agriculture. One aside from the article I loved: the term “Dark Age” is an elite invention. Before around 400 years ago— when there were still non-city-state areas left for outcasts and rebels to flee to— democracy, culture, and overall human health flourished precisely when city-states collapsed.
Charles Mudede, “Vancouver Study Shows Why Seattle’s HALA Is Doomed to Fail.” HALA– the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda– is a Band-Aid on a huge problem: that Seattle’s bonkers housing boom is fueled, not by supply and demand, but by debt-driven finance. New condos are a speculative commodity making developers tons of money, and mandating that 10% of them be “affordable” will do nothing to slow an upcycling of all of Seattle’s new housing stock. The only realistic way to dampen this would be a high tax on speculation, something Seattle doesn’t have the power to enact.
Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles.” As the racist right enjoys unprecedented sympathy and moral support from federal government, anti-racist resistance needs to turn up, without the belief that the state will play any role in dampening reactionary violence.
Michael Wear, “Pro-Life Voters and Pro-Choice Politicians.” Wear’s political background is obviously not mine, but he makes a point about voting that has stuck with me. It’s tempting, and common, to think of voting as primarily a personal expression, a statement about our identity (as in “voting one’s conscience”). But if we really believe that our engagement with politics can be a form of loving one’s neighbor, our voting should reflect not primarily what we believe about ourselves, but about how we want peace, well-being, and empowerment to come to our communities.